Learning to love black

Henri Matisse, View of Collioure and the sea, 1907 - Met Museum

At school in art class I was taught that black paint is evil, (my teacher was a hardcore impressionist) and that to make a black you need to mix it from other colours, and the required colours were Burnt Sienna and Cobalt blue. It’s taken a LONG time to get this out of my system and in my paintings I still like to mix optical blacks, usually now with Alizarin Crimson and Viridian Green, and Burnt Umber with Ultramarine or Pthalo Blues.

Matisse said ‘black is a force’ and he painted some amazing paintings using blacks. You can see what he’s getting at looking at his paintings, but it was his rare skill not to overuse them and just use them to anchor his compositions. I learnt from Louis Smith that for very dark shadow skin tones Alizarin Crimson and Sap Green work really well together. I have mixed black with other colours to darken them and am getting better at using it, although sparingly.. I also learnt to mix Alizarin Crimson with black as this gives it more depth – just another kind of optical black really.

Here’s one of my favourite Matisse paintings and one of my all time greatest paintings; View of Collioure and the sea, 1907 – from the Met Museum, as I remember about 60 x 90cm. Its a lateish Fauvist work known, according to the Met Museum, as “Le Vitrail” (“The Stained Glass”) by Matisse’s family as the black lines of the trees and the colours resemble a stained glass window. Its painted with such economy of means – the photo doesn’t do it justice of course. Fabulous snaking tree trunks and green blobs for foliage, through to the view of the sea beyond. I saw it in Tate Modern a few years ago in some show or other, such a beautiful painting. I  still remember clearly how it took my breath away.

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